Few people have influenced the game of football more than John Heisman. Born in 1869, Heisman earned a law degree before becoming a prominent college football coach in the early years of the sport. Heisman's career as a coach lasted 36 years and included stints at Auburn University, Clemson University, Georgia Tech, and Rice University, among others. His most impressive coaching reign was with Georgia Tech (1904-1919), where his Golden Tornadoes were a scoring powerhouse with an astounding 33 straight wins. However, it was Heisman’s innovations in the sport that are most remembered. Generally, his greatest innovation is considered to be the forward pass, which he fought to get legalized for three years. Additionally, Heisman is credited with developing such facets as the center snap and its vocal signals of “hut” or “hike;” the hidden ball play; the double play; dividing games into quarters; and the statistical scoreboard, among a long list of other improvements. Today, the well-known innovator's legacy lives on through the famous award in his name, the Heisman Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation’s best college football player.

Before his glory days as a coach, Heisman was just another player for the University of Pennsylvania football team. After two years at Brown University, he enrolled at Penn to study law. Weighing around 160 pounds, he wasn't the largest player on the team, but that didn't stop Heisman from playing on the 1890 and 1891 varsity football teams as guard, center, tackle, and occasionally, end. In other ways he did look the part, as he had a flat nose due to being struck in the face by a football when he tried to block a kick against Penn State by leap-frogging the center. In 1892, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Due to poor eyesight, he took his exams orally. Incidentally, his eye problem would lead him to decide to return to Ohio to accept the job as Oberlin College’s first football coach rather than pursue a career in law.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

After graduating, Heisman continued to be a part of the Penn community. In 1920, he returned to serve as head coach of the Quakers, leading their team for three seasons. His tenure, however brief, was not without some historical milestones. On September 24, 1921, Heisman led the Penn football team to a staggering 89-0 defeat of Delaware, making it the second-most points scored in Penn's history. Also, on November 30, 1922, Penn and Cornell played in the first college football game broadcast on the radio. Furthermore, while a Penn player has yet to earn a Heisman Trophy, the school was presented an honorary Heisman Trophy in 2010, in recognition of Heisman’s stellar career as a student-athlete and coach at the University.